In bars, restaurants and public spaces across uptown Manhattan, New Yorkers greeted President Barack Obama’s performance at the second presidential debate on Tuesday with rowdy cheers.
After a lackluster performance in Denver two weeks ago, Obama was under intense pressure to defend his presidency at a town hall-style debate at Long Island’s Hofstra University.
A Gallup poll released just hours earlier showed Romney with a four-point lead over Obama among likely voters, a two-point boost since last week. After the debate, 46 percent of viewers in a CNN/ORC International survey said Obama won, while 39 percent said Romney outperformed him. Obama’s win fell within the poll’s margin of error.
Uptown, however, where Republicans were in short supply, there was little doubt about the victor.
Three hours before Obama and Romney went head-to-head over jobs, immigration and foreign policy, men in tweed suits and hats, and women with powdered faces and pearls, bawling babies in tow, lined up outside the Apollo Theater to grab seats at the Uptown Hall Debate Viewing Party.
“Where else is the audience renowned for voicing their pleasure and their displeasure?” Apollo Theater CEO and president Jonelle Procope asked rhetorically, as the packed hall, which seats 1,506, erupted in applause. The event, she said, was a natural extension of the role the Apollo plays in Harlem. “This is the epicenter of African American culture. This is a town hall where we engage in conversations that matter to the people here,” she said.
When the debate appeared on a massive screen that took up the entire stage, the crowd’s roars often overpowered the candidates’ voices. As Romney responded to questions, audience members booed him, yelling “How?” when he made statements like “I want you to get a job” and “I’m going to change that.”
Neiza Davis, a Harlem resident who works in real estate, was among the most exuberant, cheering Obama and jeering Romney throughout. Her son, Philip David Ellison, works for the Obama campaign, covering the Bronx and part of Harlem.
“He was excellent,” Davis said of Obama’s performance. She can’t understand why some people still don’t know how they’re going to vote. “If you’re undecided, what are you waiting for?”
Spectators bounced in their seats and heckled as Obama and Romney squared off over oil. They applauded moderator Candy Crowley’s stern attempt to keep the candidates within time limits. At times, they yelled at Romney to sit down. When Obama spoke, several declared, “He’s comin’ back.” After he grilled Romney about his 47 percent comment, a viewer shouted, “Yes! He kicked it!”
By contrast, Sylvia’s Restaurant on Lenox Avenue in Harlem was quiet as patrons enjoyed their traditional soul food dinners. All seemed typical of a Tuesday night, until 9 p.m., when diners turned to a small television above the bar to hear Romney and Obama tussle over gun control and women’s issues.
Munching on a fried pork chop with mashed potatoes, Shantel Fryer, 21, contested the idea that Obama underperformed in the previous debate. “He wanted to stay on topic and get all the questions answered during the last debate; he did not want to verbally come at Romney,” she said.
“Obama just wasn’t obnoxious and rude in the last debate; that’s why people say that he lost,” Danielle Jones, 20, interrupted. “That’s Obama’s persona. He’s laid back and he makes his point.”
Some uptowners weren’t cheering for either candidate. At Buddha Beer Bar in Inwood, 31-year-old Adam Sokol rooted for the Detroit Tigers. “I’ve got a horse in this race,” he said between plays. When it comes to the election, “My mind is made up.”
Bar Manager Brian Duffy switched seven of his eight TVs to the Yankees playoff game. About 75 people showed up for the first debate, he said, but after the vice presidential debate last week, customers complained about missing sports.
Nevertheless, more than half of about 25 people at the Buddha Beer Bar were glued to the subtitles on the lone television airing the Romney-Obama face-off. “It’s a little difficult because I have to read the words, but I’m paying attention to the body language,” said Harlemite Andrietta Simf, who sported an Obama T-shirt.
The Harlem4Obama watch party at Corner Social, a popular bar at 126th and Lenox, wasn’t as hopping as it was during the first debate, either. Still the cheers were deafening when the president remarked that his pension wasn’t as big as the governor’s, and again when the moderator chastised Romney for misleading remarks about the administration response to the embassy attack in Libya.
“The president is more vigorous today,” said Roger Faust, a marketing specialist and Obama supporter. He was cautious, though, about calling an early win before the fact checkers had chewed over the night’s punch lines. “The majority of Americans are ignorant, and in the eyes of sensationalism, Obama looks good at the moment,” he said.
Harlem resident Adriene Holder didn’t hesitate to praise Obama’s performance. “This is a 180 degree difference in Barack Obama,” she said.
Harlem native Corey Boone, 42, agreed.
“Obama was more aggressive, more straightforward with facts,” he said. “I think Barack sealed the deal tonight.”